Criticism of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme tends to focus on worker conditions in New Zealand — their accommodation, hours, and rates of pay.
Less well known are the complex impacts on the workers’ home communities in the Pacific islands.
Sefita Hao’uli has been involved with the RSE scheme from the very beginning. In a conversation with Teuila Fuatai, he talks about some of the rippling social consequences from what is intended to be a win-win arrangement.
At the very beginning, there was a lot of enthusiasm in the Pacific to get the RSE scheme up and running.
The aim was to target people who were supposed to be unemployed. If you didn’t have a job, you’d qualify.
That’s because a lot of the issues around the Pacific have to do with the fact that, while we can do a lot of things, one of the things we’ve been struggling to do well, is to create jobs. That’s true for Tonga. It’s true for Vanuatu and Sāmoa, and to some extent, Fiji.
So, in 2006, Helen Clark was asked by Pacific countries if her government could open up the New Zealand labour market so Pacific workers could access it. There was a trial with Vanuatu that year, and then the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme was launched for the rest of the Pacific in 2007.
I was called in by officials here to help develop the policy to manage the scheme. And once it was up and running, I was asked to be Tonga’s liaison person.
That meant monitoring how the programme was being implemented on the ground, and looking after the interests of our workers. Essentially, it was about managing our workers’ relationships with their employers, and with government agencies and community organisations as well. And managing relationships between our workers too, because, as you’d expect when you throw a group of people together, that didn’t always run smoothly.
Tonga was the first Pacific country to have liaison officers, and I think it made a difference in how our workers fared under the scheme, and for their employers, too. I left that role a year ago, but I’m still called on when there’s a particular issue. For instance, after Cyclone Gabrielle, I was down in Hawke’s Bay as part of the Tongan community’s response team, making sure our RSE workers got the help they needed.
When RSE started, there was a lot of enthusiasm among workers to leave Tonga and come and work here. In that eagerness to take part — and seeing the benefits of sending people away to work — I think too little attention was given to the big picture.
The focus was: “Look, here are opportunities for our people who tell us they’re unemployed. They need money.”
The assessment sheet asked people if they were working. Well, if you’re a subsistence grower, and you don’t have an employer, the answer was no.
But in reality, if you’re a subsistence farmer, you are actually working. You’re planting your own food, and your job is to feed the family. You employ yourself, and you live on what you grow, and your family rely on you, and you can support them.
So, there were people in there who should’ve been classified as being employed. Because even when we took all these people away, the unemployment rate seemed to stay the same.
It wasn’t until they were missing from the village for six months, over a period of five or six years, that it became obvious that when people like this are missing, things change at home.
In the peak years of 2012–2015, we were sending around 2000 workers a year to New Zealand. That’s from a population of just over 100,000.
I remember in the very first year, I had a call from a worker in the South Island. He sounded a bit anxious. I said: “What’s the matter?” And he said: “Well, I just got paid today.” And my heart sank. I thought: “Oh no, here we go. He’s been underpaid, or it’s not as much as he thought he’d get.”
But he said: “Well, I’m holding in my hand, $495 . . .” And I said: “So, what’s wrong?” He said: “This is the first time I’ve held this amount of money.”
He couldn’t believe it, and yet he still sounded a bit anxious. So, I said: “What’s the next problem?” And he said: “Well, I think the next problem is that I’ll be getting this every week for the next six months.”
Here’s somebody who has never held $400 cash in his hands. But it seemed like he hadn’t decided whether this was a good thing or not.
Looking back on it, with that regular income coming in every six months, well, people’s lives were then built around that. They came to rely on it in a way they hadn’t before.
In some ways, it’s an addictive situation to be in. There’s nothing quite like having an assured income, each and every year, and to be paid better than your local counterparts in Tonga. It’s being able to get all the things that the family needs by just sending somebody away, or two people away, to be able to earn it.
The school fees were paid, their kids were better dressed to go to school. So many of our RSE families have provided first-rate education for their children as a result of the scheme. Vehicles started showing up in the villages, and then their houses looked better. The flatscreen TVs started to arrive. Bicycles for the kids.
The consumer goods and consumer-driven spending were the most obvious things that showed up at that time. And it helped to embed the idea that the scheme has been good for families.
These are, if you like, the visual benefits from the scheme.
Of course, the workers aren’t tasked with what happens to the rest of the country while they’re enjoying this benefit and giving their families what they need.
So, the point isn’t to blame them for enjoying the benefits of labour mobility.
The point is to get those who are running the country to look more widely at the positives and the negatives, and at what happens when you solve one problem — that’s unemployment — by sending your people overseas where their labour costs are realised at a much higher rate than they would be at home.
If we’re going to rely heavily on sending our most productive workers offshore, there will be an economic and social impact back at home.
It became noticeable within five or six years of the scheme. It was first noticeable among our biggest employers in Tonga, who were losing staff, year by year, to seasonal work, and were unable to get them back on their return because they were reluctant to work at the local rates offered.
There was an agricultural produce exporter who found that the workers who used to turn up to weed and plant for him were no longer there. Every time he asked, he was told: “Oh, they’ve gone to New Zealand. They’ve gone to Australia.”
And when the workers returned home, they told him they weren’t prepared to do it at the rate that he was paying. And then it became unaffordable for him as a business.
And you can imagine, it played out in other ways. We saw women who used to do housekeeping work back in Tonga for the families who could afford to pay for their services, or who’d worked in shops or done clerical work, also go missing. We started seeing public servants, police officers and some defence force personnel, taking special and annual leave to sign up for RSE — and then returning to their jobs.
Whenever employers back home complained that they couldn’t get the workers to run their businesses, the response was: “Well, you have to pay them better.” And of course, they couldn’t afford to pay them better, because paying them better meant matching the New Zealand rates. And those businesses would go broke — and some did.
And it began to show up when the Tongan government started looking overseas for Tongans who’d been working overseas, to go home and fill the vacancies. So we’ve seen more and more non-Tongans being recruited to do work that Tongans in the past used to do. Domestic help from Fiji and from Asia became a status symbol among the local elite and in the hospitality sector.
There was also the issue of what happened to families when their fathers and uncles and brothers were away (because, initially, the demand was mostly for men). What was in place to take care of those at home?
And the answer is: nothing. You can’t replace a father. You don’t have part-time fathers looking after their families. The impact among children is still unknown, unquantified.
When we started to see the wider consequence for families — the breakdown and dysfunction in families — I suggested to employers that part of the solution was to allow workers to go home temporarily to sort it out. But the policy then, as it is now, is to apply for a new visa, with all the costs including travel being met by the worker.
In the end, there was no meaningful intervention for these families, and most were left to fend for themselves.
Now, 16 years later, we have to ask if this scheme is a sustainable model for the home countries. Because the demand from New Zealand (and Australia too) only grows.
Tonga is now bringing in school leavers who make up the bulk of our unemployed. We’re talking about the 18-year-olds to the early 20s who are now making up more and more of what we call our work-ready pool.
They’re expected to do the same work. The problem is, can they sustain it over a long period of time? Being away from home — can they manage given their inexperience with New Zealand and having never been away from home before?
And given the characteristics of a teenager anywhere in the world, will they be able to get the maximum benefit from the scheme, given that they’ll be here unsupervised by families, and unsupervised by elders who would’ve given them the sort of guidance they need to be productive? And to what extent will employers take this into account when they sign them up?
What we’ve seen in the past, and briefly over the last few years, is that the younger they are, the more likely it is that they’re going to take risks, whether it’s drinking or drugs or just being absent from work, which doesn’t help the scheme at all.
The concern that New Zealand has, and most employers have, is will they be able to do the work? The concern that Tonga should have is: “Can we afford to send our young people away?”
It wasn’t until 2020 that we finally had an RSE policy approved in Tonga. And the reason the policy was set up was to answer those sorts of questions. It forces decisions to be made, to address those wider issues.
It took that long to finally set it down and get it approved, and we need to acknowledge that it’s about six years late. There’s a lot of catching up to do, because in that time, some of the negative impacts of RSE have probably gone beyond the point of repair.
Our inability to collect data at the very beginning, which is something that should be part and parcel of any good scheme — those failures mean that we’re now relying on perhaps inaccurate data, or guesswork.
So the policy will force the Tongan government to look more closely at what they should be doing to maximise the benefits, and to address the negative impacts on a macroeconomic scale in Tonga.
But also making sure that we’re not doing families out of their only hope to survive, given the pressures that Tonga is under at present.
What could have helped in the beginning, for instance, would be requiring those who had a piece of land in Tonga, where they grew their food, to pay somebody in Tonga to look after their plantation if they were working here.
Sāmoa woke up to this fairly early. In some villages, they made it a condition that you couldn’t join the scheme unless you had planted, I think, 2000 taros.
But for many of our landless Tongans, people who don’t own land, their plantations really were the orchards here in New Zealand, and the packhouses, because these were the only way they could meet their daily needs, and to be able to save for the future.
There’s no doubt that for the families who’ve benefited most out of this, this scheme has been a blessing. There’s no doubt about that. And they’ve made good use of it.
One of the first guys that came over under the scheme went home the season before last with two tractors. He managed to buy two second-hand tractors. He decided that he wasn’t going to come back. So that’s his retirement package. He’s in his 60s and his health has been deteriorating, and his plan was to hire out the tractors on the island to tend other people’s crops.
But then I saw that he put his name down to come back. He was turned down for health reasons. He told me he wanted to come back because he felt his group needed his leadership, and they wouldn’t do well without him. But I think it was also partly to do with that addictiveness.
I’ve seen people over the years make the decision to stay home, for their families’ sake. But they’re in the minority. Most find it hard to turn their backs on the income they get here — because the need doesn’t go away. We have people here, for instance, working to rebuild their village after the volcanic eruption a year ago.
RSE is supposed to operate on what we call a “triple-win” mantra: Let’s not do things unless everybody wins. In this case, the worker, the employer, and the country.
We’re always looking for a balance: Will everybody be able to benefit from this?
Now, 16 years later, and with a policy review underway here in New Zealand — I’d argue, many years too late — how much of that benefit is sustainable as a win for the workers and their country? The win for New Zealand is well-documented.
I do think it’s time to reassess and have a look at where that balance has fallen over the years. Who has won more and should be able to support the other to win a little bit better, so that this game will be more sustainable and more equitable for all the parties? Have New Zealand and Australia won more? Did they get proportionately more benefits out of the scheme at a cost to the Pacific?
Some of the negative impacts of RSE we may not have foreseen. Some of them were definitely foreseen. And through inaction or lack of prioritising or whatever the reason is, we didn’t do enough to mitigate them.
But now is the time to take another look and rearrange ourselves, so that we can have a much better way of doing this. And to make sure that we manage this for the future, not just today.
Sefita Hao’uli is a former journalist and broadcaster based in Auckland. He helped to set up and run Radio 531pi in 1993, and then Niu FM in 2002. He’s been involved in the RSE scheme since its inception in 2007, primarily looking after Tonga’s RSE workers and its interests in the scheme, a role he left in 2022. This year he was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the Pacific community.
As told to Teuila Fuatai, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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